The importance of being "present"

We often fail to recognise the impact our thoughts have on our emotional well-being. It's pretty easy to recognise when you are feeling a negative emotion, after all, it feels bad. We feel tense, irritable, stressed-out. Sometimes, we recognise our behaviours that are associated with these feelings. We withdraw, stomp around, or pace the hallways. But what about our thoughts?

Actually, it all starts with our thoughts...

Wait, what? Our thoughts come first? Well, yes, according to CBT, or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy theory. This idea suggests that it's our interpretations of situations that lead to a particular feeling and set of actions. Helpful, realistic, coping-oriented thoughts or interpretations lead to helpful, realistic, coping-oriented feelings and behaviours. And vice versa. Extreme, unhelpful thoughts, that overestimate how bad something is or how likely it is the bad thing is going to happen (or overestimate how bad something was that actually happened), lead to extreme feelings, and extreme behaviours. But what does this have to do with being present?

Being "present" means being in the here and now.

Having our attention focused on our experience right in this moment. Connecting with what is actually happening right here, right now. It's a concept called "Mindfulness", and it's making it's way into many therapy rooms across the globe. But why is is helpful to be mindful? Well, think about when we are having those stressed thoughts. The ones about last week, or yesterday, or this afternoon, or next year. When we spend time up in our heads, time-travelling with our thoughts, it takes us away from what is right in front of us. The important things. The things that bring meaning, richness, and connection to our lives. Our children. Our gardens. What is on our dinner plate. Well, these things bring richness to my life. Whatever brings richness to your lives is what you might want to spend some more time engaging with. 

So, how does one be present?

Well, there are lots of ways actually. But a good place to start is to think about your five senses. Sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Your senses tell you about this exact moment. What you hear is occurring right now. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. This very moment. Same for the other senses. I like to show my clients an activity called the 5,4,3,2,1 game, to help them start to connect with their present experience (and disconnect from their time-travelling stressed thoughts). It involves noticing 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. You CAN mix up the order, but I find this version works well.

Try it now. And next time you are eating dinner, or in the shower, or going for a walk. And notice whether that experience added richness and meaning to your life. Then recognise that now, you have the ability to be present and connected with the here and now. There are heaps of other ways to add richness and meaning to your life. Reach out to your therapist to find out more. 

Olivia Boer is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Healthy Mind Centre Launceston, a private psychology practice in Launceston, Tasmania. 


Your bucket is overflowing...

So, you have worked out you are stressed, tried some basic strategies, and are now keeping track of your stress levels (if you haven't done this, go back and have a look at our last two blog posts here). But how do you put it all together?

One nice, neat analogy is the stress bucket. Essentially, most people have a bit of stress (or SUDS of 3/10). This can be thought of as a bucket 3/10th full. When your bucket is just under a third full, then you have just over two thirds left of capacity before your emotional bucket overflows. Now, not everyone starts at the same place. People who have very little stress, or great resilience, start off with a little less. People who have a lot going on, or lots of things topping up their bucket, start off with a bit more. Or a lot more.

If you are starting out with a bucket half-full (wow, that sounds optimistic hey!) or two thirds full of stress, then you have less coping capacity to deal with stressful things that happen. If you have a large amount of stressful things happening, and your resilience is low, you might find yourself sitting at 95%. Then, all it takes is one more (sometimes small) thing and whoosh, your bucket overflows. 

Now for some people an overflowing bucket looks like bursting into tears, or yelling at your children, or saying out loud that statement you have fantasised screaming at your boss. Or maybe it's getting into bed, turning over to face the wall and pulling the covers up. And for those who are struggling the most, thinking that there is no way out and our bucket will be like this forever. Or that the bucket can't be emptied. 

You CAN get your bucket levels down. Sometimes it's by reducing the amount of stress coming into your bucket (life), sometimes it's getting more effective at letting it out. Mostly it's a combination of both. But often we aren't sure how to do this on our own, and that's where someone like a psychologist, counsellor, or your GP can help you move into a less-stressed and healthier head space. 

Olivia Boer is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Healthy Mind Centre Launceston, a private psychology practice in Launceston, Tasmania. 

stress bucket psychology.jpg

How much stress do you have in your life?

Stress can impact most, if not all areas of our lives. Every day. In fact, even things that we typically see as good, such as a new relationship or doing something exciting, add stress to our lives. 

No one has no stress (unless we are unconscious, and even then our brains and bodies can experience stress - nightmares, anyone?). Additionally, stress is a very individual and often internal experience. Other people might not know how stressed we are just by looking at us.

One helpful way to measure how stressed you are is using a Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS). Using SUDS allows us to compare our stress levels across events, and at different times of the day. It's a technique psychologists and other counsellors often use, so we can accurately understand someone's internal experience. A SUDS scale can be 0-100 or 0-10. I prefer 0-10 for simplicity (and because I work with a lot of children, not all who can easily count to 100!). Generally, 0 = no distress (comatose) and 10 = extreme distress.

So, back to no one has no stress. Average, everyday stress levels for the average, everyday person could be about 3/10. Enough so they look before they cross the road and make a bit of an effort in life. Netflix and Chill is around 2/10. At about 5/10, you are noticing signs of stress in your emotions and body, but you can still do the things you need to do. At around 7/10, your level of functioning begins to become impaired - you can no longer concentrate as well as you would like to, and it's getting tricky not to high-tail it out of there or scream at someone. By 9/10, you are on the verge of losing control. And 10/10, well, you've lost it. 

Try getting into the habit of checking in with yourself regularly (or your partner or children) at different times and working out what your number is at any given time. It's a very useful strategy as it can guide what you do next, as well as help predict the times you are likely to be more vulnerable in the future. Keeping note in a diary or on your phone is a great idea too. Have a chat to your psychologist for more guidance - we can help you work out what next.